In 1937, Ms. Mary Jane Wilson, “Pioneer Negro Teacher of Portsmouth, Virginia,” reflects on her life…
Today is the 153rd anniversary of the liberation of Richmond, Virginia, by Union forces during America’s Civil War, 1861-1865. The first soldiers to enter Richmond were the “colored” regiments of the Union Army, ranks formed of free and formerly enslaved African-Americans.
Our own ancestors were a part of this collective sacrifice and struggle for freedom, escaping slavery where they were held in bondage, and serving with the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 36th, and 37th Regiments of the United States Colored Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the United States Colored Cavalry, and as domestics, laundresses, and messengers in and around Union camps and hospitals. This post reflects just a few of the sites I’ve visited over the years that chronicle the long road to freedom.
I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.
Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.
“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.
I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE
Thomas Craig. So reads the name on the faded and sunken headstone of military issue in Mount Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia. Part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Fisher’s Hill) (est. 1879), I first noticed Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive on a humid July 4th holiday weekend in 2007, searching for ancestral grave sites with my family. Not being aware of any known map, we walked the entire cemetery, and in doing so, passed the Craig gravestone several times. At the time, my focus was on finding any and all headstones with the name “Orton.” My paternal ancestry stretches back to 1690 in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My grand-aunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, was concerned about the lasting legacy of our family line. Born in 1923 in a home on Griffin Street, she was a life-time Portsmouth resident. Before her passing in March of 2007, she called my father and other relatives to her bedside in Maryview Hospital, with the admonition “do not let our history die.” Hearing that call, I concentrated fully on researching the paternal side of my family tree. I’d dabbled in genealogy since 2001, but now I had a mission. This was my grand-aunt’s last wish. Honoring this wish led us to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.
With further research, I discovered that our ancestors had visited and tended to family plots from some of the first burials performed in the early 1880s through to the early 1940s. However, elders that live in and around Portsmouth informed me that by the late 1940s, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex was about full, and the then existing owner allowed it to become overgrown in the decades that followed. By 1960, the cemetery complex was nearly impassable, and was closed by the city soon thereafter. Trees, vines, poison ivy, and trash came to dominate what was once the premier burial ground and one of the earliest institutions of Portsmouth’s African American community (Portsmouth cemeteries were segregated until 1975). Visitation had largely ceased, and calls for its care and restoration by the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, pastors, lodges, and various civic groups went unheeded. With Lincoln Memorial cemetery (1912), and the graveyards of Grove Baptist and Olive Branch Church (and eventually, Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Chesapeake) becoming the primary cemeteries of Portsmouth’s black community, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex fell into shadow, a forgotten area of the old city.